'Leaving The Witness': The End Of The World As She Knew It, Upon Losing Her Religion

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 12:56 am

As a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Amber Scorah believed she had the answer to life's biggest questions. The answer was Armageddon, and it predetermined everything.

"If the world is ending, why would you go to college?" Scorah says in an interview. "Why would you get a career?"

So, she didn't. Instead, like every other member of the church, she dedicated her life to spreading the word.

Scorah was married at age 22, and she and her husband moved to China to work as missionaries. Everything had to be secret — such preaching was illegal in China. And for most of her time in Shanghai, the work to save souls was exhilarating.

"It's almost like you've won an existential argument," she says. "There's nothing like taking someone, especially someone that has a totally different frame of reference, totally different belief system, and seeing them change their mind. It's almost so affirming. Like ... 'I definitely have the truth.'"

But then a series of events left Amber Scorah less sure of the truth. They led to her loss of faith and her own personal apocalypse. Having started over, she has written about it in a new memoir called Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.

While in Shanghai, Scorah began working at a startup called ChinesePod, which offers an online Mandarin language course. (She is fluent in Mandarin.) There, she eventually developed and hosted the podcast Dear Amber: The Insider's Guide to Everything China. But among her initial tasks was to moderate the site's active online forum, where she started corresponding with someone with the username Taipan — real name Jonathan.

"So, Jonathan was one of the listeners, and it was nothing," Scorah says. "I didn't intend to develop any kind of deeper relationship with him, but we just started talking every day. The topics started very innocently, but later evolved into more deep subjects."

Amber Scorah writes about exiting the Jehovah's Witnesses in Leaving the Witness.
Lee Towndrow / Viking

The subjects included the very foundations of her religion.

"I did reveal to him at some point what my religion was ... later he told me that already he had Jehovah's Witnesses on his radar as his fifth favorite cult," Scorah says, laughing. "So he just did what I wouldn't have thought of doing, which was to educate myself about my religion outside the framework of what I was allowed to read — which was our own organization's publications."

To be fair, she says, she was already having doubts about her worldview before talking to Jonathan.

"For example, being in this foreign culture and sitting down, speaking Chinese, another language — a language that basically causes you to have to revamp your entire way of thinking in order to speak it — had started to make me hear the things that I was teaching for the first time with new ears," Scorah says. "And I realized that some of the things sounded kind of crazy. And also, I started to feel a little arrogant, because these people had thousands of years of cultural history and wisdom. And here I was with my 100-or-so-year-old religion telling them to just throw that all away for this."

But it was Jonathan who made her directly confront her beliefs. The deep conversations continued. And on a trip back to North America, she finally met Jonathan, and they became physically intimate. She says there was something that "propelled" her to this "point of no return."

"It's funny — I didn't go see Jonathan with the intent of ending my marriage," Scorah says. "However, it's a very strange thing: When you're in a religion and your whole worldview is this apocalyptic worldview, the only ending you know is apocalypse. ... And my religion is not one that you can just slink out of, especially given the position I was in. I was a pioneer missionary; I was married to an elder; I was in this foreign land, there for preaching. If I just tried to walk away, it doesn't work like that. People aren't going to be, like, 'Oh, what happened to Amber?' "

Declared an apostate, Scorah was shunned by her husband, friends, family and the majority of her community. It didn't work out with Jonathan either.

"There was no other way for it to end than to have a new beginning," she says. "And also, I was just reading something where someone was talking about: You can never have change without loss. You know, people always say they want their life to change, but they don't change their life because they're afraid of loss. You can't have one without the other."

At the end of her memoir, the narrative takes a sharp turn. Scorah moves to New York, falls in love, has a son. Then she suffers a different kind of trauma. On the very first day of sending her son to day care, he dies suddenly, hours after she had left him there. He was 3 months old.

"I don't know how to describe the anguish," Scorah says. "The devastation was complete on every level. But as far as just finding meaning — it's interesting, because when I was a Jehovah's Witness, we had the answers to all life's disturbing questions, including: What happens when someone dies? Why would an innocent child die? Why would God allow that to happen? But the reality is ... if you have answers to all of life's questions, yes, it feels very meaningful, but if those answers aren't true, then that's also meaningless.

"There's a way through these kinds of things without religion. And I think mostly, I think it has to do with other people, and with love. That's what's brought meaning to life again for me."

Life goes on for Scorah. She and her partner have a 3-year-old daughter now. And she says she has "gratitude" for the experience she went through.

"I have so much gratitude to China because I know, for a fact, if I had not been in China, I would have still been a Jehovah's Witness who was thinking the world was going to end every day, and basically using my life for something that was effectually a myth," Scorah says.

She says she hopes to visit China again to visit Jean, a former student in her Bible study who never became a Jehovah's Witness but did become a friend. Jean, she says, also has a daughter now; everyone hopes for a reunion.

Karina Pauletti and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Amber Scorah was a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, and she believed she had the answers to life's biggest questions; the answer was Armageddon, and it predetermined everything.

AMBER SCORAH: If the world is ending, why would you go to college? Why would you get a career?

KING: So she didn't. Instead, like every other member of the church, she dedicated her life to spreading the word. She was married by the age of 22, and she and her husband moved to China to work as missionaries. Everything had to be secret. And for most of her time in Shanghai, her work saving souls was exhilarating.

SCORAH: It's almost like you've won an existential argument. I don't know, like, it's - there's nothing like taking someone, especially someone that has a totally different frame of reference, totally different belief system, and seeing them change their mind. It's almost so affirming. Like, oh, this - I definitely have the truth.

KING: But then some things happened that left Amber less sure about the truth. She talked to Rachel about her new memoir. It's called "Leaving The Witness: Exiting A Religion And Finding A Life."

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So to support yourself in your missionary work, you ended up getting this great job, working as the host of a podcast about life in China...

SCORAH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...From the perspective of a Western foreigner. Through that you meet a man named Jonathan. Introduce us to him, and explain what he became to you.

SCORAH: Yeah, it was interesting. At this job, when I started working making the podcast, it was before social media. It was around 2006, when the whole world was socializing through forums. Everyone was just ready to talk to each other online. We had many listeners to the podcast, and I would moderate the community forums. So Jonathan was one of the listeners, and it was nothing - I didn't intend to develop any kind of deeper relationship with him, but we just started talking every day. The topics started very innocently, but later evolved into more deep subjects.

MARTIN: Deep subjects like the very foundations of your religion.

SCORAH: Yeah, I did reveal to him at some point what my religion was. And I guess later he told me that already he had Jehovah's Witnesses on his radar as his fifth-favorite cult (laughter).

MARTIN: The fifth-favorite, though; not even No. 3.

SCORAH: (Laughter) Exactly. So he just did what I wouldn't have thought of doing, which was to educate myself about my religion outside the framework of what I was allowed to read, which was our own organization's publications.

MARTIN: So this relationship gets deeper. You get closer. It does eventually - when you go visit him, it becomes physically intimate. And you decide to leave your husband. Did you realize in that moment that you were also leaving the faith?

SCORAH: It was more like this - there were already other threads that were starting to make me have doubts before I even talked to Jonathan. For example, being in this foreign culture and sitting down, speaking Chinese, another language - a language that basically causes you to have to revamp your entire way of thinking in order to speak it - had started to make me hear the things that I was teaching for the first time with new ears. And I realized that some of the things sounded kind of crazy. And also, I started to feel a little arrogant because these people had thousands of years of cultural history and wisdom, and here I was with my 100-or-so-year-old religion telling them to just throw that all away for this; this is true.

So there were already sort of cracks forming. And then, I think, when he actually directly made me look at my beliefs and question them and think about them, at first I was very resistant, but the things that he said started to just worm their way into my brain. When I think about the end of my marriage - it's funny - I didn't go see Jonathan with the intent of ending my marriage. However, it's a very strange thing when you're in a religion and your whole worldview is this apocalyptic worldview, the only kind of ending you know is apocalypse, Armageddon.

MARTIN: To blow it all up.

SCORAH: Blowing it all up, exactly. And my religion is not one that you can just sort of, like, slink out of, especially given the position I was in. I was a pioneer missionary. I was married to an elder. I was in this foreign land, there for preaching. If I just tried to walk away, it doesn't work like that (laughter). People are just going to be like, oh, what happened to Amber?

MARTIN: Right.

SCORAH: So I think there was sort of this combination of things that - there was something that just propelled me to this act, which I knew would be a point of no return.

MARTIN: So you needed him to extricate yourself from your faith.

SCORAH: Yes.

MARTIN: But then, in that, you lost him, and at the end of it, you're all alone. You did lose all your family. You did lose all your friends, your community, through this.

SCORAH: I don't think I consciously chose that, but it's just - there was no other way for it to end than to have a new beginning. And also, I was just reading something where someone was talking about you can never have changed without loss. You know, people always say they want their life to change, but then they don't change their life because they're afraid of loss. You can't have one without the other.

MARTIN: Now, at this point, I should say that the conversation took a sharp turn, as the book does, near the end of it. We learn that Amber moves to New York. She starts over. She falls in love. She has a baby. Then she suffers a trauma that is hard to describe. Her son was only a few months old when she dropped him off for his very first day at daycare. He died there, just hours after she left him. The story got national attention when it happened.

SCORAH: I don't know how to describe the anguish. Like, the devastation was complete, on every level. But as far as just finding meaning, it's interesting because when I was a Jehovah's Witness, we had the answers to all life's disturbing questions, including, like, what happens when someone dies? Why would a innocent child die? Why would God allow that to happen? But the reality is, is that if you have answers to all of life's questions, yes, it feels very meaningful. But if those answers aren't true, then that's also meaningless. There's a way through these kinds of things without religion.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SCORAH: And I think, mostly, it has to do with other people and with love; that's what's brought meaning to life again for me.

MARTIN: You have a daughter, right?

SCORAH: Yes.

MARTIN: How old is she?

SCORAH: She's almost 3.

MARTIN: Have you or do you plan to take her to China?

SCORAH: I would love to because one of the characters in the book, Jean, who was my bible study in China, she never ended up becoming a Jehovah's Witness. And we are friends to this day, and she also has a daughter now, so we're hoping to have a reunion with the two of them and us.

MARTIN: How do you think of that place, where so much of your life changed?

SCORAH: I have so much gratitude to China because I know for a fact if I had not been in China, I would have still been a Jehovah's Witness who was thinking the world was going to end every day and, basically, using my life for something that was effectually a myth.

MARTIN: That's all so interesting. I mean, you did go through the apocalypse. Losing a child is like the end...

SCORAH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Right? - of life in so many ways.

SCORAH: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then you came out on the other side.

SCORAH: Yeah. I think it's something that teaches you something, that life does go on and there is a way through. There's no way around these things, but there is a way through.

MARTIN: Amber Scorah - her memoir is titled "Leaving The Witness." Thank you so much for talking with us.

SCORAH: Thank you, Rachel. It was so nice to be here.

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